I hate to be a downer here, but I had to interrupt Michael Bennet’s virtual victory tour on the passage of the child tax credit, which was included as part of Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill.

Because the work, it turns out, is not quite done.

As you’ve probably heard, the enhanced child tax credit — which sends a $300 monthly stipend to most parents for kids under 6 and $250 for parents with kids from 6 to 17 — would cut child poverty by nearly half, according to several analyses. Bennet and Sherrod Brown have been working on similar bills for years. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker took up the cause at a critical time. It’s a clear counterpoint to the disastrous Clintonian end-welfare-as-we-know-it strategy.

Mike Littwin

Even as some see the tax credit as revolutionary — or, as Biden might say, a big effen deal — poll numbers in favor are ridiculous in this hyperpolarized time, with 95% approval from Democrats, 73% from Republicans, 85% total.

The problem with the tax credit is that it passed as part of a one-year reconciliation bill, which, not to confuse everyone, can be used under Senate rules only rarely and requires only 51 votes for a bill to pass and not the 60 needed, on virtually all Democratic bills in the McConnell era, to overcome a filibuster.

That means the credits would last only a year. For the COVID relief bill, a year works for most aspects of the law. But Democrats desperately want to expand the credits, which act more like a subsidy for the poorest families, by making them permanent. 

But how?

So I called Bennet to ask. It’s not just the child tax credit expansion that is at stake here. It’s also every other piece of legislation that is in Biden’s ambitious legislative program, from immigration reform to climate change to voting rights to infrastructure to background checks and beyond. It’s hard to see how Biden can get much, or maybe any, of that passed without dumping the filibuster or at least radically reforming it. 

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Democrats are convinced they can win the 2022 midterms — even though the party in power nearly always loses, and often dramatically — because the Republican party won’t break away from the, uh, former president. Mitch McConnell, who despises the former president, tried very hard twice to lead the party away from him. When he looked over his shoulder and saw very few followers, McConnell caved. We  know who owns his party. McConnell is just renting.

But for Democrats to take advantage of Republicans’ fealty to one flawed man, they know they have to show that having them in power makes a difference. That’s why you see Biden and Kamala Harris on the trail, riding that early momentum of the relief bill, of the vaccine distribution, of an uptick in voter approval. And it’s why Democrats, if they are to sustain that, will have no choice but to either dispense with or drastically reform the filibuster. 

But first, to Bennet and his child tax credit, which may be the best thing Bennet has done in his decade-plus as senator. It’s that important.

“There will be enormous pressure on the Congress to make it permanent,” Bennet told me. “And there’s real potential for us to do this in a bipartisan way. Mitt Romney’s bill, in its size and scope, is slightly more generous than the one I wrote. There should be room for negotiation there. And no one wants to own doubling childhood poverty.

“Instead of just accepting the notion that we have the highest childhood poverty (among peer nations), we can mitigate the damage that has been to our society as a result. If we make the investment, the dividends will be extraordinary.”

Bennet points to a recently released study by Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy, which says the new child tax credits would cost $100 billion annually but would return $800 billion in social benefits.

Bennet is hoping that the child credits will be attached to the infrastructure bill, for which Biden is expected to use reconciliation again. He gets one more shot at reconciliation this year.

But it’s not as easy as that. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, suddenly the most powerful man in Washington, says he won’t allow infrastructure to be passed without Republican input. That could mean no reconciliation, although it doesn’t have to. Manchin, along with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, also opposes getting rid of the filibuster, although Manchin has tempered his opposition somewhat.

Manchin claims the filibuster allows for debate on important bills, although, of course, it does nothing of the sort. The filibuster has an ugly history, of Southern Democrats, Dixiecrats, using it to block civil rights laws. In fact, it was used often to block anti-lynching laws. But it was used fairly rarely until McConnell decided to use it to block as much Obama-led legislation as possible. In the modern filibuster, there’s no Mr. Smith. There’s an email announcing the filibuster, and unless there are 60 votes for cloture, that’s the end of it.

Manchin now says he might be willing to listen to bringing back the old filibuster, which means continuously talking on the floor. Not surprisingly, McConnell is already threatening that he would use a talking filibuster to talk bills to death.

“This chaos would not open up an express lane to liberal change. It would not open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books,” McConnell said from the Senate floor. “The Senate would be more like a hundred-car pileup. Nothing moving.”

This may all come to a head soon. Republican-led legislatures across the country are passing voter suppression laws in their states, repeating the same lies the former president keeps propagating about a so-called rigged election. They even tried in Colorado, but, of course, the bills went nowhere in a Democratic-controlled legislature. Hundreds have been introduced that basically target Black and minority communities, limiting early voting, limiting voting by mail, ending Sunday voting, and on and on. 

In Georgia, which, as we know, Biden won in a close race, Stacey Abrams has called voter-suppression bills in the legislature there “a redux of Jim Crow in a suit and tie.” She’s not wrong.

The House has passed a voting-reform bill — H.R. 1 — that would, among other things, require early voting, voting by mail, automatic voter registration, a committee to draw congressional districts and a lot of other stuff that we already have in Colorado. 

Unless the filibuster is ended or reformed, that bill would never pass the Senate, and many states would lock in both voter suppression and the ability to gerrymander a huge advantage in House districts. When that’s the choice for Democrats, it becomes harder to stick to Senate rules that restrict democracy.

Senators like Bennet have turned against the filibuster. “I have never seen the filibuster to achieve a bipartisan result,” he said. “I have seen it used over and over again to obstruct important work the America people need to get done. And even worse, not having a vote allows senators to hide on important issues, from background checks to health care.”

And now it’s election reform. It’s the John Lewis voting act, which would restore many of the protections lost with the Roberts court decision, in Shelby County vs. Holder, voiding significant parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It’s immigration reform. It’s DACA. It’s climate change. It’s gun reform.

And the Democrats believe that if they can pass much of their platform during a pandemic and economic downturn, they can do what FDR did in 1934 in his first midterm election, coming during the Depression with his New Deal — pick up nine House seats and nine in the Senate. If the Democrats are going to do nearly as well, it probably has to be 2022. If you look closely, you’ll see that In Roosevelt’s second midterm, he lost 71 House seats and six in the Senate. And if that doesn’t set the stakes for Biden and the Democrats, I don’t know what will.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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